First Jews don’t count, now Jehovah. As he existentially approaches 60, David Baddiel is on a Blues Brothers mission from God (more on Him later) to shape the zeitgeist.
The piercing moral clarity of his first TLS extended essay, Jews Don’t Count, reframed the antisemitism debate – ripping the band aid off a sore at the centre of progressive politics. The 2021 bestseller spawned a recent Channel 4 documentary and an eponymous viral hashtag.
British Jews owe him a great debt.
It would, however, be something of a hand-waving miracle if The God Desire has anything like the same impact. In picking apart our ravenous mortal hunger for God, the iconoclast has bitten off way more than he can Jew.
In the beginning Baddiel makes clear he would dearly love there to be a guy in the sky – “a superhero dad” landlord who puts us up in “post-death neighbourhoods” – but understood long ago that desire “provides no frame for reality”.
Rather, God’s absence outside our vivid imagination is just a “deeply depressing” fact for anyone who doesn’t much care for dying. “Death is necessary and makes more sense than – whatever the Bee Gees might say – staying alive,” he laments.
In picking apart our ravenous mortal hunger for God, the iconoclast has bitten off way more than he can Jew.
His logic, if logic applies, is sound. After all, if you think Santa has his work cut out on Christmas Eve, spare a thought for planning post-death accommodation for the 120 billion humans who have lived and died on this planet in the last 200,000 years – not to mention all other possible intelligent lifeforms in our 14 billion-year-old (or 6,000-year-old) God-created Universe. We’re talking town planning that makes Milton Keynes look like my son’s Lego set.
Baddiel coins the term “Oblivion knowledge” to diagnose the desire of the book’s title – that niggling sense we all share that there was an eternity before we were born and there will be an eternity after we’ve gone. He writes: “Every bishop and imam and rabbi knows this, and that’s why so many pray so fervently. We pray and pray and pray, to drive out that knowledge.”
Mark Twain put it more optimistically: “I was dead for billions of years before I was born and never suffered the smallest inconvenience.”
The book’s sweet spot lands when Baddiel, who has very religious relatives, separates his rejection of the Jewish God with affection for the Jewish faith. To be a Jew “you don’t have to have much of a sense of God,” he writes. “What you need is a sense of ritual.” Which explains his atavistic affection for ancient Jewish traditions like Kaddish, the Hebrew mourner’s prayer.
He writes about sobbing at the end of Tom Stoppard’s Leopoldstadt, a play about a Jewish family fleeing persecution, noting: “Jewish culture and traditions have strongly influenced me, and nothing can change the facts of my predominantly Jewish heritage.”
The author is emphatic, without yelling at the reader like Richard Dawkins (whose 2006 book has a similar title) or AC Grayling
For Baddiel, the handy thing about erasing God from Judaism is that he “doesn’t have to process the idea that (friends and family) might be properly clever yet deeply believe something I hold to be absurd… It’s like having to process the idea that some of your friends might be really smart but also have an intense form of OCD.”
To demonstrate a cognitive dissonance perhaps unique to Judaism (and why there are so many branches of the faith, from strictly-Orthodox to secular humanists – it’s a Baskin-Robins religion) he recalls turning down an invite to light Chanukah candles by telling the rabbi he’s an atheist. “So am I!” replied the rabbi.
Baddiel accepts that while you don’t gotta have God, you gotta have faith. Something to believe in. Comparing football to faith, he predictably dredges up the lyrics of his flogged-to-death song Three Lions as an example of England supporters hoping against hope that the team might win something after 60 years. “I know that was then, but it could be again…”
We’ve all got our own existential struggle to juggle. No amount of God gags is going to make us feel any less antsy.
The author is emphatic without yelling at the reader like Richard Dawkins (whose 2006 book has a similar title) or AC Grayling, who witheringly accuses believers of “failing in their responsibility to themselves as intelligent beings”. The God Desire is an affectionate two fingers up.
There’s plenty to ponder whenever this wise and witty mortal whips out his chisel and tablets of stone, but being privy to another person raging against the dying of the light tends to be as riveting as hearing about their abstract dreams or fun-filled fortnight in Fuerteventura. It’s a discussion to have with the mirror or psychiatrist, not the reader. We’ve all got our existential struggle to juggle. No amount of God gags will make us feel less antsy.
Baddiel can’t shift the dial on a chicken and egg debate older than chickens or eggs – consciousness creates God/God creates consciousness. He can’t pull the sword from the primordial stone or move the reader towards his view as masterfully managed in Jews Don’t Count. This book – a 94-page one-sitting read – is simply the equivalent of a few beers with a funny, philosophical bloke down the pub.
Which, after all, isn’t the worst way to while away a few hours in this meaningless abyss. Or stairway to heaven.
• The God Desire (Hardback) is published by TLS Books/HarperCollins and available from 13 April. Priced £9.99
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